Techno-phobes in City Hall Government records: Lack of technology not the problem, but officials who fail to use it.


TOO MANY TIMES lack of technology has been blamed by Baltimore officials for their failings. Last spring, the recreation department blamed its non-computerized record-keeping for its ignorance of how much each recreation center collects in activity fees. A few months ago, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke blamed the lack of centralized record-keeping for a delay in completing a report on legal fees paid by the city. And the Housing Department recently said its antiquated records system was part of the reason it didn't know that poor people with Section 8 housing vouchers were concentrating in the Patterson Park community.

Has the Information Age bypassed Baltimore? Are city agencies and departments trying to keep up with data by using pocket calculators and recording every number by hand in huge ledgers? Not entirely. Actually, Baltimore has one of the most current information systems to be found in any big city. Agencies in buildings that are miles apart have been linked by computer using a fiber-optics network. Information as detailed as aerial photo maps showing every house, curb, street, sewer and fire hydrant in the city is accessible on line.

City Finance Director William R. Brown, Jr. says the problem is that not every department head is taking advantage of the city's recordkeeping abilities. If an agency encodes the information for the computer system, the city has the technological capability to keep information that is very detailed, including what fees a rec center collects and how it spends each dollar. In fact, the city's information systems are about to become even better. Jack P. Richards, a former FBI audit supervisor, has been hired to assess and improve the existing technology.

Already the city has created a system that allows agency budget analysts to move personnel and dollars around as easily as a person balancing his checkbook on a home computer. What used to take hours now takes minutes. There is no excuse for the public to be put off when it asks for up-to-date information. The technology is in place. The mayor ought to demand that department heads use it.

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